2007 Davis 300K Brevet

Stars still shone overhead when the wooden gate to our back yard clicked shut behind me. Looking east the darkness faded to a deep turquoise, and on the horizon the clouds over the Sierra Nevada were streaked with dark orange and purple, the first signs of sunrise. I'm not much of an early riser most days, but there is always something magical about setting off on a bicycle before dawn—the colors in the sky, the cool air, the deserted streets quiet save for birdsong.

This was my third brevet since moving to California, and my first 300K. The Davis brevet series is apparently one of the most popular and well-attended in the nation; by my reckoning there were at least a hundred riders in the Mace Boulevard Park-n-Ride lot, on the eastern edge of town. I don't yet know many cyclists here, so despite the crowd the start was not, for me, the kind of social get-together I'd become accustomed to in Boston. I said hello to Peter Hewitt, who once lived in Vermont and shared some New England nostalgia with me at the start of the Davis 200K a couple weeks earlier. I also chatted with a handful of other people, and did my bit to evangelize saddlebags and dynamo hubs. Saddlebags, by the way—especially small ones, such as the Carradice Barley—seem especially valuable in California's dry climate. When night-time lows can dip into the high 30s and daytime highs may soar over 100, either you carry a saddlebag or you're bound to be uncomfortable at some point on a long ride.

The brevet started at 7am sharp. Tandems at the front, the group sped south of Davis in a double paceline. The sun rose to our left, casting an orange glow on the scattered valley oaks, the miles of white fences, and the gauzy mist that hung over the fields in every direction. Few people talked. I enjoyed the calm and the rush of air and the blur of smooth pavement.

During the 200K I had ridden many miles in a strong and aggressive paceline—25mph on the flats, no waiting or regrouping, no stopping for flats. This time again the same handful of riders surged forward, but I had had enough the first time, and watched them recede into the distance. Yet somehow I soon found myself in a second small group, apparently playing catch-up to the first. We had covered 36Km (23mi) in little over 50 minutes when my self-preservation instinct kicked in and I decided to proceed alone at a pace that I might be able to sustain for the rest of the day.

I caught up to another rider, Bill, astride a pretty titanium Ibis. We were a good pace match, and would ride together for several hours. Randonneuring for him has been literally a life-changing experience: he met his wife at PBP 2003. A large group caught us on the flats of Lake Solano but quickly thinned out again on the first significant climb of the day, up to Lake Berryessa. In addition to Bill, I found myself riding with Ken, an impressively strong but quiet man on a titanium Seven. Our little threesome stayed together for several hours, alternating pulls, and occasionally we were joined by one or two other cyclists.

"Cardiac" Hill, a 2-mile climb that is a staple of Davis-area rides, saw me struggle to keep the others' pace, but soon enough I regained contact. The land around us was beautiful, rugged hills green from winter rains and dotted with dark, scraggly oaks. We arrived at the first checkpoint, in Pope Valley, at 10:20am, having covered 108Km in 200 minutes. Some of the fast group, including Reed Walden, whom I'd met on the Santa Cruz 200K a week earlier, were still there, evidently recovering from their sprint out of Davis.

We headed west through Pope Valley and up Butts Canyon Road, alternately through lush farmland and dry scrub, over a couple modest climbs, and finally into another, broader valley where vineyards lined the road and signs advertised wine tastings. We were in Napa. The sun burned down from a cloudless sky, heat rose from the pavement, and I was running low on water, but I wasn't too worried—we were in Middletown already, just a few miles from the turn-around point.

That's when Ken turned to me and said, "Now's where it gets tough." Huh? I looked down at my cue sheet and, for the first time, noticed the small print: "Cobb Mountain, 5 mile 6-11% climb to control." Ouch. I decided to ration the mouthfuls remaining in my water bottle. The climb starts gently, in the shade, but soon the tree cover ends and the pavement angles up at much closer to 11% than 6%. I let my companions pull away slowly, though they remained in view almost to the top. I finished my water, but fortunately the heat eased with altitude, and then we were among the redwoods, and soon enough I was enjoying V-8 in the shade of a big tree by the parking lot of Cobb Elementary School. (I crossed the lead group on its way back to Davis about a mile before the summit.)

I made short work of the checkpoint and descended with my riding companions. Five miles at an average 8% grade makes for good fun, and the curves were such that we barely had to touch the brakes. Back in Middletown we picked up a local cyclist out for a Saturday spin. He wore a "Toscana" jersey and talked at length about the wonders of cycling in Italy and the Alps. I smiled to myself but didn't say much, a little too breathless to maintain a comfortable conversation. And no surprise, either: having dropped our italophile friend on one of the numerous rollers, we reached the third checkpoint, again at Pope Valley, at 13:56. 200Km in 6:56—not bad, considering Cobb Mountain and that our little group never consisted of more than five people.

Unfortunately, my satisfaction was short-lived, because I simply did not eat enough. A few miles down the road, in Chiles Valley, I bonked: no energy, thighs empty, feet as heavy as bricks. Bill came back to rescue me and pull me back into the group, but I knew I'd be useless on the upcoming rollers. I thanked him and waved them on. Then, resigned but methodical, I set about chewing a couple Power Bars. Yummmm..

My torpor had just begun to lift when I heard conversation behind me. It was Peter Hewitt on his green Serotta, and another Peter, whose last name I did not catch, who wore a long ponytail and rode a Surley Steamroller fixie with an impressively large gear ratio. That someone would choose to ride this 300K on a fixie reeked in equal parts of madness and genius. The two Peters welcomed my company, and I was lonely no more.

I learned quickly that Steamroller Peter had picked an aptly named bike, for he was a truly impressive rider. The other Peter and I struggled to keep up with him on our geared bikes, and I'm ashamed to say I did not have much to contribute in the way of pulls. Before long we passed two riders from my former group, who had themselves run low on fuel.

Along the shores of Lake Berryessa we ran into the usual crowd of weekend leisure boaters, mostly macho men with beer guts driving pickup trucks and towing mammoth speedboats. One of these guys, about to get into his vehicle, tossed some trash into the ditch just as we rode by. Steamroller Peter hollered, "Hey, a**h**e, why don't you put that s**t back in your truck!" I couldn't agree more, but wondered about the cost/benefit equation, considering that the trash certainly wasn't going to leave the ditch, and that our friend drove a 4-ton truck while we were on bicycles, in the middle of nowhere. We rode on in silence for some time before Peter Hewitt voiced those same concerns, but at that point we hardly cared. There's a lot to be said for directness.

I learned the hard way that two water bottles (my standard in New England) are not always enough on California brevets. Peter of the Steamroller carried three, Peter Hewitt four. I hoped that the secret checkpoint would be near Lake Solano, about 30 miles from the finish, but it wasn't. My mouth was dry, my jersey covered in salt. Fortunately Peter Hewitt came to the rescue with one of his water bottles, and both Peters were kind enough to wait for me as I struggled with my heat-stricken metabolism. This was mid-March, mind you; I don't dare think what it will be like to cycle here in July.

The secret control finally materialized about ten miles from the finish, where the course crosses over I-80 near Dixon. We drank our fill—I put away four or five cans of V-8—and then, much refreshed, cruised the last uneventful miles to the finish. We arrived at the Park-n-Ride lot at 17:52, for a total time of 10:52. Peter Hewitt soon hopped back on his bike for the 20-mile ride back to Sacramento—he would ride almost 400Km before the day was over—while I headed in the opposite direction, home to Davis.